Coordinating Needs

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2006-06-20

Sun Helps Stanford Open New Earth Science Research Center

STANFORD, Calif.—Sun Microsystems may not have made a profit for nearly five years, but the struggling IT infrastructure giant isnt shying away from giving some dollars back to the ol alma mater now and then—especially when it fits a long-term agenda item of its own.

Stanford University President John Hennessy and a couple of Stanford graduates, Sun chairman Scott McNealy and Sun chief architect and senior vice president of network systems Andy Bechtolsheim, all were on hand June 20 when the university officially christened its new CEES (Computational Earth and Environmental Science) research facility.

CEES, which takes up the fourth floor of Stanfords Mitchell Earth Sciences building, was jump-started by a $3 million donation from Sun—including in-kind donations of hardware and software that provide most of the heavy-lifting hardware and network systems used in the high-end computational research projects starting up there.

Cisco Systems donated $250,000, and the U.S. Geological Survey also was a key donor, a Stanford spokesperson said.

The facility, which actually opened for research six months ago and at this time serves about 75 graduate and post-doc students and faculty members, will be used to expand the present capacity for interdisciplinary Earth science research, facility IT manager Dennis Michael told eWEEK.

The research center is expected to enable deeper analysis, simulation and prediction around complex Earth processes and systems – which could lead to advances in earthquake detection, oil exploration, and the effects of oceanic and climate changes, Hennessy said.

CEES also happens to be a good showplace for Suns best power-grid-type supercomputers.

Michael showed a group of visitors three 6-foot-high stacks of Sun Opteron and SPARC servers—loaded with the Solaris operating system—that supply most of the power computing needs of the students at the facility.

Click here to read more about Suns efforts to shape the future of education and bridge the digital divide.

The center also is connected to the Sun Grid Network, which allows any outsider with a PayPal account to buy computing power on the massive grid for $1 per hour.

Sun, IBM and Cray are currently in a serious battle for contracts estimated to be worth billions of dollars from the U.S. governments DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to build next-generation multi-petaflop computers.

That coveted contract is expected to be awarded later this summer to one—or possibly two—of the three vendors, when the project enters Phase III of the long-term DARPA plan.

It would be a major win for Sun, which has struggled throughout the current decade as the demand for high-end computers has cooled and new, cheaper technologies have come to the forefront.

"Im pushing really hard on this one," McNealy told eWEEK following the June 20 event. "We see this as a must-win situation."

DARPA, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Interior, awarded Sun, IBM and Cray a total of $146 million in July 2003 as part of the second phase of its 10-year-long HPCS (High Productivity Computing Systems) Program, whose mission is to produce a design for a high-performance system that is easier for programmers to use and scales to quadrillions of calculations per second (peta-scale computing).

DARPA said at that time the HPCS program is aimed at filling a gap in high-end computing that it anticipates the Department of Defense will experience as it moves from traditional HPTC technology to the future, which is quantum computing. DARPA wants the first computers of this type to be available in 2009 or 2010.

Sun and Cray—and to a lesser extent, IBM— re banking heavily on new contracts from the U.S. government, which are likely to have long shelf lives.

"Supercomputing is definitely one of Suns big strategies [going forward]," McNealy said.

"Why shouldnt it be? We already supply some of the most powerful computers in the world—have for a long time. There are big problems to solve out there, and we can help solve them."

Next Page: Coordinating needs.

Coordinating Needs

The idea behind the CEES is to coordinate the needs of large corporations, new technology and expertise from academia, center director Jerry Harris said. CEES also aims to tackle technology issues that plague the energy industry.

For example, researchers will use the center to study solutions to such major Earth science problems as global warming, oil and gas exploration, seismic activity, and water and air hazards.

"Our mission is to enhance the capacity for large-scale computational research for Earth and environmental science," said Harris, who also is professor of geophysics in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences.

"A driving force for this is the fact that, here at Stanford, we have some of the worlds best scientists, and across the street in Silicon Valley are some of the worlds best computer designers and builders."

McNealy said that Sun is quite comfortable with the idea of sharing research for the common good.

"You know, we were Red Hat way back in the 80s, before there was a Red Hat," he said. "Im going to pull an Al Gore here and go out on a limb to say that Sun pretty much invented community development in software.

To read more about Suns effort to create an online, open-source educational resource library, click here.

"Linus [Torvalds, founder of Linux] was still in diapers when we open-sourced TCP/IP—one of the building blocks of the Internet—in 1982 and put it into our first computer."

Having worked with the energy sector for more than 20 years, Sun is helping bridge the gap between academia and industry by supporting the CEES, said Kim Jones, vice president of global education and research at Sun.

"This provides a unique and innovative architecture for functional analysis of very complex applications used in Earth and environmental science," she said.

Sun also is a founding member of what the university hopes will be a larger consortium that will oversee the research center. Other current board members are Chevron and British Petroleum.

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